This week sees the launch of Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s (NICHS) new vaping awareness campaign which comes as a result of the charity’s concern about the number of young people choosing to vape and the misconceptions often associated with vaping.
Fidelma Carter, Head of Public Health at NICHS explains; “A recent survey found that 21%, or one fifth, of young people have used an e-cigarette at least once¹. The survey also highlighted that the number of Year 12s who class themselves as regular e-cigarette users has increased from 6% in 2016 to 17% in 2022.”
“Many people may think there is little risk associated with regular vaping. The biggest misunderstanding about vapes is that they are harmless compared to cigarettes. This is not true, and this message needs to change to prevent more young people from taking up and getting addicted to vaping because they think they are risk free. The long-term health implications are unknown - just as they once were with tobacco. We have launched our vaping awareness campaign in response to the misunderstandings around the potential health risks associated with vaping and the huge increase in the number of teenagers using vapes.”
“Vapes are designed to deliver vaporised liquids into your lungs when you breathe in. This vapourised liquid isn’t water and it almost always contains nicotine, flavours and either/or a combination of humectants such as propylene glycol, vegetable glycerine or glycerol. Many flavours and humectants have been approved in the UK for oral ingestion but not for inhalation. Therefore, the health risk is not well known, when consumed in this manner. Vapes may also contain other harmful chemicals that aren’t listed on the pack.”
Fidelma continues; “There is also emerging evidence and increasing concerns about the impact of vaping on our lungs, hearts and blood vessels which could lead to future cardiovascular and respiratory illness. People could go on to develop serious health conditions as a result of their vaping, which can also exacerbate existing conditions like asthma. We need to cull vaping until we have more research knowledge on the long-term health implications.”
“Through our campaign we want to dispel some of the myths around vaping, such as ‘It’s just flavoured air’, and make people aware of the potential dangers associated with it. People may be surprised to learn for example that vapes can contain the same harmful chemicals found in cleaning products, nail polish remover and weed killer. Also, one 20mg disposable vape can have as much as 20 cigarettes worth of nicotine in it. Our campaign includes extensive outdoor, digital and radio advertising. The NICHS website also has lots of resources and information about vaping and you can find out more at nichs.org.uk/vaping .”
“Our stance on vaping is that we recommend avoiding the use of vapes other than in a short-term attempt to quit smoking and would urge people, if you don’t smoke, don’t vape.”
“Due to the increasing concerns about vaping, we are also campaigning to increase the age of sale for vapes, as well as cigarettes, to 21 rather than 18 which is currently the case. A recent survey found that 85% of people in NI agreed with our proposal and we would encourage the public to join our campaign to protect young people by contacting us at email@example.com . We are also very concerned about where young people are getting their vapes from as it is currently illegal to sell vapes to people under 18 years old. We need to increase the fines for those who do’’.
Mary Griffin, from Belfast, and her daughter Sarah understand the dangers associated with vaping all too well. They are speaking out about their experiences in support of NICHS’s new campaign after Sarah was recently admitted to ICU and put in an induced coma after she had been vaping. The mother and daughter now want to raise awareness of the potential dangers of vaping, especially among young people.
Mary explains; “It was a Sunday night, Sarah was getting ready for bed and said she didn’t feel great. She started coughing but because Sarah has asthma, we put that down to the change in weather as that has been a trigger for Sarah’s asthma before. Her cough was no different from any other time and she used her inhaler and nebuliser throughout the Sunday night into Monday morning.”
“That morning I was taking my other two children to school when Sarah rang and said, ‘Come back mummy, I don’t feel well, I’m afraid’. I got home, gave Sarah her inhaler and nebuliser again and she seemed to settle. A while later I popped out to the shop quickly and Sarah rang again, this time completely out of breath, barely able to string a sentence together, saying, ‘I need a doctor or to go to hospital’.”
“Her dad immediately took her to the Royal Victoria Hospital. The nurse did Sarah’s vitals, and her oxygen levels were very low. The next thing I knew, Sarah’s dad phoned me to say Sarah was in Resus. I went to the hospital, and Sarah was just in a blind panic, she was terrified. She was on oxygen and was linked up to all sorts of machines. There were medical staff all around her assessing her and they said she needed to go to ICU as she was deteriorating very quickly.”
Mary continues; “The doctor showed me an X-ray of Sarah’s lungs and explained one had been badly injured. The other was therefore working overtime and aggravating her asthma. Sarah also had an infection, so everything combined had a massive impact on her body, extremely quickly.”
“When we got to ICU the team worked on Sarah for four and a half hours before having to put her into an induced coma. There were tubes, wires, and machines everywhere- it was heart-breaking to see her like that.”
“As her mum I just felt so helpless- it was a nightmare come true. Sarah has an older brother and two younger siblings and trying to explain to them what was happening was awful. They were asking if she was going to die, and I was saying, ‘Of course not’, but in my mind I was terrified that was a real possibility. I had to try and keep it together for them, but I was out of my mind with worry. I never thought something like this would happen to us, you never do.”
The medical team worked on Sarah around the clock, but it was a difficult journey. Mary explains; ““Sarah had machines breathing for her, doing everything for her, and she was very unstable. It was really hard for the doctors and nurses to find a balance for Sarah- if they got her oxygen levels sorted, her blood pressure would go down, or if they got something else sorted, another one of her vitals would go in the wrong direction.”
“It felt like one step forward, two steps backwards and that went on for a few days. At first, we really didn’t think Sarah would make it. The first time the team tried to bring Sarah out of the induced coma she was so agitated the doctors decided it was too early and they would have to induce her again. I had to help and hold Sarah’s hands to try and settle her so the doctors could do what they needed to do. I was frightened, and it was horrible to have to see Sarah so scared.”
“They then tried to bring Sarah out of the induced coma again the next day and started removing tubes, reducing her sedation, taking her off the ventilator and slowly brought her back round. At that stage I had some hope Sarah would be ok, but I was preparing myself that she might be in hospital for weeks or even months. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case and Sarah got home after a few days. She is a fighter and was absolutely amazing through everything.”
With Sarah stabilised the doctors were able to explain to Mary what had happened and how at risk her daughter had been. Marys says; “The doctors explained that if Sarah hadn’t of been vaping, she would have been in a better position to fight off the infection. Vaping had left her lungs very weak.”
“The doctors said if Sarah had of got to hospital any later the outcome would have been entirely different. That is something I can’t even think about."
Thankfully Sarah is now recovering at home but the effects of what happened to her will unfortunately be long-term. Mary explains; “It has been a traumatising experience for Sarah. It has traumatised me and it didn’t happen to me. The day she went to hospital Sarah thought she would be admitted, be put on a nebuliser for a while and then go home again. For her to end up in ICU was a terrifying experience and she’s still trying to make sense of it all.”
“For the rest of her life Sarah will be classed as a high-risk patient if she is admitted to hospital because of the effect this has had on her physically. This isn’t a case of a hospital stay and that’s it over with. Sarah was discharged with steroids, new inhalers, and a new Personal Asthma Action Plan to help manage her asthma. She has also been transferred to the care of the Difficult to Control Asthma Clinic at The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, when previously her asthma was well controlled, and we just went to the GP about it.”
“Sarah has been left very lethargic. She is usually full of energy, constantly talking and on the go but she is still recovering and isn’t back to her usual self yet. The mental impact has been as big as the physical impact. She has been through such a trauma. She still has a long road ahead of her, but we are just so grateful to have her back home with us.”
Talking of her support for Northern Ireland Chest Heart & Stroke’s new vaping awareness campaign Mary says; “What Sarah has experienced could easily happen to other young people, and we don’t want that which is why we’re sharing our story and supporting NICHS’s vaping campaign. I have seen children as young as 7 and 8 years old vaping which is just horrendous.”
“Sarah hadn’t been vaping heavily but that, coupled with her asthma was such a dangerous combination. Young people are attracted to the bright colours and flavours of vapes- they might smell and taste sweet, but people need to know about the potential dangers associated with them.”
“We want other young people to see the potential impact vaping can have as it will hopefully make them think twice about doing it. The photos of Sarah in ICU are hard to look at, but we think it’s important young people see these and get a better understanding of the possible dangers. Sarah says that if sharing her story helps save another young person and their family going through the same thing we have then it’s worth doing.”
For further information and support about vaping visit, https://nichs.org.uk/vaping